Triumph all ye cherubim

In the outgrowth of the “Free To Be You and Me”-tinged seventies, an enlightened young priest in our parish organized “Co-Ed Football Fridays” for myself and the other sixth-grade students enrolled at our Catholic grammar school. In retrospect, it seemed an experimental companion piece to our weekly sex education class, un-ironically taught to us on Friday mornings by a dour, pale nun with a utilitarian hairstyle.

At Fr. Michael’s urging, we were invited to form weekly teams — under his assured supervision — and play touch football in scrappy, mixed squads. We’d gather at 3:30 pm in our street clothes — after having raced home to change out of our Catholic school uniforms — on a swath of dry grass somewhat out of place in asphalted Queens.

Just a few years earlier, as a quiet second grader, I had stood in that same field and sung “Bring Flowers of the Rarest” to a life-size ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary — an annual Marian devotion offered by the Sisters of the Dominican Order, who taught us at Sacred Heart School. We schoolchildren stood in a swirling sea of plaid and saddle shoes, and looked on as the motionless, unblinking Queen Mother was presented with a floral crown by two of the biggest kiss-asses in the grade. I silently seethed as they approached the tottering statue with their offering of peonies, baby’s breath and roses. They were fresh-scrubbed and hot-roller-coiffed, and both wore their First Communion dresses to the ceremony. My stomach twisted and kinked as I realized — this had all been pre-ordained. I wasn’t chosen for this, probably because my mother was the anomalous parent who worked outside of the home, and because my family was often viewed as “shanty Irish” in a predominantly German neighborhood. I felt distant from everyone else, somehow, and ashamed. I wanted to be picked. I wanted to feel special. I wanted to be known.

At the time, I had a Jane Fonda “Klute”-style shag haircut, formed while growing out my mother’s awful mistake of the Mia Farrow-”Rosemary’s Baby”-era, matching mother-daughter haircuts that she had chosen for us when I was in kindergarten. Clearly, I didn’t look holy enough. Or anything even remotely in the neighborhood of angelic, for that matter. Perhaps even worse, as the feeling overtook me — I simply wasn’t the right fit for Our Holy Mother. The sun felt hot and unforgiving, and beads of sweat trickled down the hollow of my back as I sullenly sang:

“O Mary we crown thee / with blossoms today / Queen of the Angels / Queen of the May”

The field itself was an anomaly in our grid-streeted neighborhood — a throwback to the farmland that Queens once was, before it was developed; and to the once-wealthy parish that had purchased the open land in the 1920s. For some reason, we were never allowed to enjoy recess there — probably because our shrieks would disturb midday masses, or the work of the priests in the rectory.

Instead, our playground was the sidewalks and span of blacktop between 77th and 78th Avenues, bookended by the church and school building, and cordoned off by NYPD sawhorses. I smirk to myself now, as suburban parents complain about tired monkey bars, swings and slides that need to be updated on their children’s school playgrounds. Catholic city schoolchildren of a certain era had no such thing. We climbed the chain-link fences like caged lemurs, stood together in tight groups gossiping about an ostracized classmate, and played games of tag or boxball, with chalk and Spaldeens that we’d smuggled beneath our plaid jumpers. We didn’t expect anything different. The streets were always our playgrounds.

Now, on Fridays, we made awkward line formations in the field, and ran defense under the kind tutelage of our parish priest, who looked almost cartoonish to us in jeans and sneakers as he threw passes and formed huddles. We chased each other, grazing boys’ shirted backs with our fingertips and grazing bodies as we zig-zagged through each other. It felt electric and surreal. Much of adolescence does, I suppose.

On those Fridays, I noticed the physicality of Fr. Michael’s actions — the simple pleasure he clearly derived from tousling our hair, touching our shoulders and putting his arm around us in fatherly guidance. To my knowledge, Fr. Michael was never inappropriate with — or abusive to — any of us. But even at eleven or twelve, I could see that his demeanor changed in our innocent physical interactions. The behavior didn’t placate a sexual need — but instead, a primal one. As a human being, he needed to be touched. He needed to feel connected to other people. He needed to be seen, and known. Several years later, Fr. Michael left the priesthood, and married my fourth-grade teacher’s niece. He wasn’t meant to be sequestered, high on the altar, gilded and adorned, separate from sensation or comfort.

At those gentle ages, I, too, wanted to be seen and known. I wanted to know that the stirrings and tenderness that I felt for boys was not wrong, or shameful. I wanted to know that they felt similar things about me. Not in that creepy way that Matthew Belachuk described to me the year before, while singing the chorus of Peaches and Herb’s “Reunited” to me one morning after our teacher had momentarily stepped out of the classroom — with his accompaniment of vulgar hand gestures amidst his unclipped, dirty fingernails.  I honestly thought he was referring to the insertion of a spring-loaded toilet paper holder into a roll of ScottTissue. I didn’t understand.

On one Football Friday, clear and bright in my memory, Timmy Sullivan tackled me when he shouldn’t have. As everyone else walked off to line up for the next formation — he remained over me, blue-eyed and straw-haired, and freckled. He was breathlessly, simply, near me. I can’t remember the exact phrasings he used, but there was a momentary admission of liking me. Really liking me. None of this was aggressively stated, but said out loud in awkward urgency, before we were called back to the next play. I wasn’t frightened or upset. I liked him, too. He could have kissed me, but he didn’t. We were too young. That was going too far. Remarkably, the closeness of him still stays with me, more than thirty years later. I was seen. I was known.

Later that afternoon, I cut my foot on a broken beer bottle that a teenager must have tossed in the field.  The cut bled through the flimsy canvas fabric of my new Nike sneaker, and an irregular red circle formed on its outsole. I had never seen the jagged piece nestled in the tufts of green blades. I had only felt its sting as I ran along the fence.

My friend’s older brother carried me home for as many blocks as he could — his arms hooking the backs of my knees, my arms encircling his neck. He had lifted me up without thought or discussion. I needed to be carried, or the wound would bleed more.

In that anomalous field, I was marked. I was changed. I was known.

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Comments

  1. Oh this is so good, Kathleen. I love when you write about growing up. Feel like I’m right there with you.:)

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